Lighting Your Subject



As a professional photographer, when I look at snapshots posted on Facebook, my first reaction is often to cringe at the poor lighting and how much it negatively affects the quality of the photograph.

Lighting is such a simple thing to change, but it is not something that comes natural to the average person with their smart phone or point-and-shoot camera.

Cameras do not necessarily capture what the eye sees. Or, maybe I should say that it doesn’t capture an image the WAY the eye sees it. This is why professional photographers spend so much time learning about, and practicing with, exposure, ISO, and white balance. Those all affect how the camera takes in and reads the light. I’m not going to bore you with all the technical details. Instead, my goal is to help you quickly, and easily use light the in the best way!

Lighting Your Subject

This is super important. After you’ve decided what your subject is, then you need to determine the best way to light that subject. 

I was able to get one of my lovely, senior girls to help me out with some examples. I took the photos with my DSLR, but I used the auto settings in order to mimic using a point-and-shoot (which is the same as all those people who buy DSLRs and keep them on auto, which is absolutely a waste of money). These photos are SOOC (straight out of camera - no editing), so they are a good example of what a point-and-shoot would be like. 

Lit From Behind
In this first photo, I placed Mikayla right in front of the window, facing into the room. The only light is coming from the window.



As you can see, Mikayla is completely in silhouette. I’m guessing that this is probably not the look you are going for when taking photos of your friends and family! Remember how I said that the camera doesn’t “see” things the way we do? This is a perfect example of this because even though I could still see Mikayla’s face, the camera isn’t recording what I can see. The camera compensates for the light coming through the window in order to not overexpose the sky, thus underexposing our subject. This is an extreme example, but a good one. Many people place their subjects with the light behind them. Even if it is not extreme enough to place their subject in silhouette, it usually results in a very dark subject. Not at all an ideal photo! You want to be very careful when putting your subject between you and your light source, especially if it is your only light source!

Side Light
Let’s move our subject and try lighting her from the side.



Moving Mikayla slightly so that the light is coming in from the side, you can already tell what a difference it makes. Since the light from the window is the only light, this creates a dramatic effect with shadows on one side of our subject’s face. If there had been more light in the room from another light source (a lamp, another window), the effect would have been much softer.

Let’s try a small change by having our subject face the window.



Mikayla is still sitting with the window on her left, but I had her look out the window for this shot. Now her face is bathed in the soft light from the window. With my camera on auto settings, it is a little harsher than I would have liked. A good solution to this would be to move her a little bit further away from the window to soften the light some more, but it isn’t a bad SOOC photo.

Facing the Light
Yet another lighting choice is to have our subject turn towards the window.



With just the lighting from the room, this is our best choice for an even light on our subject. Mikayla is lovely with this genuine smile from laughing and very little shadows on her face. 

Moving our subject farther away from the light, but still facing the window is yet another option.


From farther away, the light coming in from the window is more evenly diffused. As long as I am still between the light and my subject, I am able to get a well-lit photo. This half of the room seemed fairly dark, but the camera was able to compensate for that (even on auto settings), but I won't bore you with the details on how. 


Stepping It Up a Notch

If you are actually staging photos like I did, you have another option open to you…bounce light! This isn’t something you would use every day, but if are looking to get some close ups with your subject facing you and posed, then this is something you could try at home!



Here we can see the set up for this bounce light. I used a piece of foam board (you could also use poster board or something similar) as a cheap reflector to bounce the light back up into Mikayla’s face. 



You can see how the reflector bounced the available light back up into Mikayla’s face, removing most of the shadows. I had her pull the reflector in a little closer to her than she had been holding it in the wide shot, and I angled it up a little more to remove most of the remaining shadows. She is sitting with the window to her left, but by bouncing the light back, you get light coming from more than just one direction. You can play with placing your reflector in different spots and at different angles in order to get the look you are going for. This is a great way to add light without using electric lighting which can affect the color of the photo, or cause further shadows depending on the location of the light.

Take time to pay attention to where light is coming from in relation to your subject(s) prior to taking photos. Even if you cannot move your subject, especially if you are catching them in action, you can move the light by moving the camera (You!!) to a different position relative to your subject(s).

My number one Takeaway Tip is to place yourself between your subject and your light source!

I hope I was able to shed some light on this subject. (I’m pretty puny, huh!?!) I would love to see examples of photos you have taken with your new knowledge of lighting. You can share them in the comments section.


If you have any questions about lighting or any other photography topic, please let me know. You may inspire a future blog post!

If you are near the south-central Missouri area and are looking for a professional photographer, please contact me at Gifts of Nature Photography. Like my Facebook page for more photos, tips and information!

1 comment:

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